Constellations Credit: Tyler Core

For the past year, I’ve been making the same (extremely bad) joke, paraphrasing the hard-boiled koan delivered by Matthew McConaughey‘s Rust Cohle from the first season of True Detective. “Time is a flat tire.”

Deflated, depressed, and (sometimes) defiant—that seems to be the cycle for my personal mental rhythms. The hardest part has been letting go of the what-might-have-beens: the rituals and holidays and celebrations foregone in favor of keeping loved ones safe and alive, the personal world-building plans put on hold out of necessity. The relentless Groundhog Day grind of knowing that there isn’t much I can do to change the larger current circumstances while pretending that everything at the micro level is going along according to some sort of rational timeline is exhausting, as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you.

Two streaming shows presented by local theaters deal with the notion of might-have-beens from two ends of the metaphysical telescope. In Nick Payne‘s Constellations, now streaming with Theatre Above the Law in a performance recorded live (and according to the producers, in adherence to the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines), an astrophysicist and a beekeeper wrestle with love, infidelity, terminal illness, and the possibility that string theory is real and they’re actually living several timelines at the same time. 

Meantime, magician and mentalist Jon Tai presents Missed Connections, a live Zoom show from his home in Pittsburgh, available to a limited audience at each performance, through A Red Orchid Theatre. As the title implies, Tai uses the old “missed connections” personals ads from Craigslist (though the Reader got there first) as a jumping-off place for the idea of wondering what our lives might have been like if we’d gone through a different door or made a different choice in the past.

Constellations is definitely the more downbeat of the two, but seeing them within a couple nights of each other, as I did, reinforced that even if the existence of multiverses can never be proven (we’ll file that under “Things That Are WAY Above My Paygrade”), they’re undeniably fun to ponder. Comforting, too—as long as we stick with the idea that whatever’s happening in the other universes to us right now is better (or at least less mind-numbing) than what’s going on here. (How could it be worse? Don’t ask! Don’t ask!)

Payne structures his one-act romance between scientist Marianne (Melanie McNulty) and beekeeper Roland (Ross Compton) as a series of repeating scenes, from their first meeting at a barbecue to a fumbling attempt to rekindle the affair after a chance meeting at a dance studio. Filmed with no cuts or edits (and no audience), the shifts in time are indicated solely through the actors’ body language and occasional changes in lighting. The transitions aren’t always clean, but as the show unfolds, it becomes easier to become absorbed in Tony Lawry’s staging.

McNulty’s Marianne is the more extroverted of the two—when Roland first meets her at the barbecue, she’s demonstrating the impossibility of licking one’s elbow. “They hold the secret to immortality,” she jokes. “If everyone could lick the tips of their elbows, then there’d be chaos. Because you can’t just go on living and living and living.” To which Compton’s steadfast beekeeper replies, “I’m in a relationship. So yeah.” He means that he’s not available, but as the show unfolds, it also signifies that being in a relationship is yeah, often chaotic. And yet sometimes you want to keep living and living and living with that person till you get it right.

Which is one of the points in Payne’s multiverse rom-com: Marianne and Roland, through all the iterations of the repeating interludes, keep trying to find the key to making it work in their own little universe of two. Even as time appears to be running out for one of them.

There are some self-consciously twee elements to Payne’s construction, particularly in Marianne’s Manic Pixie Dream Scientist, but McNulty and Compton’s performances are in lovely synch with each other. McNulty shows us Marianne’s neuroticism as it edges into bitterness, but it’s never pure surface cynicism. She’s still a woman who believes that looking for deeper answers, even if they can’t be found, is worth the effort. And Compton’s Roland warms up and breaks out of his own kind-but-guarded demeanor; the scene where he finally proposes to Marianne, using a tangled analogy about the lifespan of honeybees and “their unfailing clarity of purpose,” is absolutely charming.

The play is set in England, but the actors don’t use British accents. The choice accentuates (pun semi-intended) the universal underpinnings of what Payne is striving for in his earnest but engaging fable about love and time. Theatre Above the Law had hoped to stage this show live before the shutdown. This recorded performance from their tiny Rogers Park venue does an admirable job of capturing the intimacy needed for this piece to resonate.

Jon Tai
Jon TaiCredit: Joseph Wyman

Missed Connections

Zoom magic shows have been popping up everywhere: just last month I saw Thaddeus Phillips’s Zoo Motel through Links Hall, and Chicago Shakespeare brought in Scott Silven’s The Journey. Both performers, like Jon Tai, were coming to us live from other places: Phillips lives just outside Bogotá, and Silven’s back in his native Scotland during the shutdown. 

Tai’s cozy setting for Missed Connections looks like a study in his Pittsburgh home. A papier-mâché stag head (which figures into one of his stories) hangs on the wall behind him, and he pulls out a map of the U.S. and tries to place each of his Zoom guests in their appropriate locales before we begin. 

But Zoom isn’t the only way we’re connecting. Tai sends us e-mails with attachments of the various Craigslist “missed connections” he’s collected over the years with alluring subject lines such as “I’m the Girl Who Ripped the Picasso Painting at the Met” and “Please give me the keys to the handcuffs.” Audience members pick a couple of the ads at random for each show, which leads to a series of tricks that tie back into the story of the ads. (The night I attended, Tai enacted a ritual with runes in the form of Scrabble tiles.) Late in the performance, a cell phone call provides one of the most mind-boggling “how did he DO that?” moments I’ve ever seen in a magic show.

But even the smaller bits of magic involving the usual suspects of coins and cards are delivered with such beguiling warmth by Tai that we truly do feel a connection with him and the other Zoom participants. (If you’re shy about audience participation in general, perhaps this format is less intrusive than going up on stage, but do be prepared to be called upon.)

Tai’s central question—how might our lives have changed if we had chosen another path—feels less like an occasion for revisiting old regrets and more like a reminder that somewhere out there, someone else is feeling as you do. Whether that’s comforting right now or not, I can’t say, but at the very least, Missed Connections provides a chance to ponder the simple magic of everyday objects and the adroit warmhearted artistry of a man who knows how to make them feel significant, even over Zoom. I definitely felt less deflated and flat after spending time with Tai.  v